Safehold Archive

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Book Review: How Firm A Foundation

Summary Judgement:  Though it might prove difficult to approach this series in medias res, the latest entry into the Safehold mythos offers an evocative political narrative set amid a world that fuses science fiction, fantasy, and history.

Written by: David Weber

Review based off the audio novel as published by Macmillan Audio.

Before writing this review I took a moment to re-read my review of the first book in the Safehold series, Off Armageddon Reef. In June of last year, when I had my introduction to planet Safehold, Merlin Athrawes, and the Kingdom of Charis, I found myself likening Weber’s novel to something out of Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey-Maturin series.  It might technically be science fiction, but it read with all the nuance and attention to detail of good historical fiction.  Having spent the last two weeks listening to the audio book of How Firm A Foundation, I feel I must invoke another writer’s name when speaking about the latest entry into the Safehold saga: Tom Clancy.

Ostensibly, How Firm a Foundation is also a work of science fiction.  Yet, politics and intrigue drive almost everything that happens within the novel.  It seems that with each new entry, the futuristic elements of the grand narrative become further subsumed in the realpolitik of Charis’ war with Safehold’s repressive Church of God Awating and the allied nations of that church.  Though highly descriptive sea battles remain an essential part of this story, they are predicated upon and followed by explorations of the resulting political and social fallout.  Perhaps more so now than after the first book’s release, the Safehold series lives somewhere between genres, even if the division is less between sci-fi and fantasy and more between political thriller and historical fiction with only the slightest dash of things fantastic.

As was the case with the other entries into the series, the title of the novel is inexorably linked to the theme of the book.  How Firm a Foundation is not simply an arbitrary name, but the question that drives the story.  Upon how firm a foundation does the Church of God Awaiting sit as the Empire of Charis expands its benevolent yet steadfast protestant banner?  How firm is the Church’s claim to piety when it sanctions suicide bombing, torture and other acts of terror in god’s name?  How firm is the foundation upon which Charis claims both power and spiritual legitimacy?  Emperor Cayleb and Emperess Sharleyan might command the most powerful navy and technologically advanced army in all of Safehold, but what good are those weapons against Church propaganda and zealous temple loyalists still living within Charis’ borders?

In asking such deep questions, any novel, especially one in a long running series, runs the risk of becoming ponderous and dull.  Weber goes so far as to double down on that risk in marrying rigorously detailed naval scenes to the overall story.  Yet it works within this novel as Weber has a marvelous way of using world building as a tool for character development.  This tactic has the benefit of making even the most trifling red-shirt feel connected to a world beyond their scope.  When applied to major players within Safehold’s story, it’s all but impossible not to feel invested in their lives, or deaths.

Yes, I said deaths.  With this novel focusing so intently on the politics of Safehold, the stakes are necessarily increased.  As such, people die.  Naturally I won’t so much as even hint at who meets their maker except to say that one such death caught me so off guard that I found myself simultaneously saddened and also furious at Mr. Weber’s temerity to kill off a character that I perpetually enjoyed.

I mentioned earlier in this review that I had the pleasure of enjoying HFAF in audio format.  Notwithstanding the kiddie version of Star Wars that came with a 24 page illustrated book, I can’t say that I have ever listened to an audio novel.  In honesty, I didn’t think it to be a medium that I would particularly enjoy – primarily because I can read faster than the average person can speak.  Yet, Charles Keating’s flawless narration adds a heightened dimension to David Weber’s words.  In fact, I think narration is the wrong word to describe precisely what Mr. Keating does with this novel.  It’s very much a one man performance of How Firm A Foundation.  Without reducing the characters to vocal gimmicks or clichés, Keating effortlessly transitions from exposition to dialogue.  Though if I am being totally honest, the thing that sold me on Keating’s performance was his interpretation of Grand Inquistor Zhaspahr Clyntahn.  Clyntahn, the defacto ruler of the Church of God Awaiting, oozes enmity and Keating’s voice captures his personality with such precision that I when I read Safehold Book 6 it will be Keating’s voice that I hear in my head when Clyntahn speaks.

One question that comes up when approaching a novel that is part of a larger series involves the necessity of reading everything which came before it.  Should a newbie broach How Firm A Foundation without a familiarity with the previous four novels?  Should somebody watch The Empire Strikes Back without seeing A New Hope? The answer is the same for both questions: you could but you would miss out on a lot of contextual details.  Although HFAF isn’t a standalone novel, it does seem a nice bookend to numerous plot threads that began in By Heresies Distressed (Book 3) and continued through A Mighty Fortress (Book 4).  While the characterization, allegory and attention to detail are strong enough to get a newbie through the book, they would be doing themselves a disservice by not fully investing in the series as a whole.

It’s also worth noting that How Firm A Foundation is, in my estimation, the strongest of the Safehold novels to date.  That isn’t to say that anything that came before even slightly resembles a bad book.  Rather, By Schism Rent Asunder (Book 2) and By Heresies Distressed (Book 3) read more like the inaugural movements of a grand game of chess.  They are necessary, but not nearly as exciting as when the stratagems start to unfold for all to see – as was the case in A Mighty Fortress (Book 4).  How Firm a Foundation builds on that momentum but infuses a tangible sense that one game is coming to an end vis-à-vis the Church’s ability to fight Charis through conventional means, a new and more ruthless game of asynchronous warfare is beginning.

My only concern with this novel, and the Safehold series as a whole, is that it might be starting to get a little too grand.  Though Mr. Weber keeps himself to a tighter production schedule than other writers (George R.R. Martin, I’m looking at you) he has created a saga that is no less nuanced and involved than A Song of Fire and Ice. Despite the ease in comparison, the essential difference between Safehold and A Song of Fire and Ice is that I can envision an ending to the former, not so much with the latter.

I expect the very last chapter of the final Safehold book ends with the PICA that contains the consciousness of Nimue Alban standing on the bridge of a newly minted Terran Federation warship.  Crewed by the descendents of the house of Ahrmahk and accompanied by a vast armada, they square off against a Gbaba fleet in orbit of Old Terra.  But like any good road trip, knowing the destination in no way diminishes the experience of getting there.  After witnessing the events of How Firm A Foundation, I can not wait to see what comes next.

Overall Score: +3.75


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Geek News: September 10, 2011

Today in Geek News:  A new space combat game, David Weber has a new book, and Fox is the only network that seems to care about science fiction on television.

Greetings programs.  Let’s do things in the reverse order of the headline, just to mix it up a bit.  This September’s television line-up doesn’t cater to fans of science fiction.  We’re coming up on seven years without a new Star Trek series, Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome is still being talked about in the future conditional tense and for the first time since I was fifteen years old I find myself living in a Stargate free world.  So what’s a genre fan to do other than mine episodes of Castle for its various and sundry Firefly references?  Why watch the Fox network, of course.

I know, Fox gets a lot of hate for cancelling shows with cult followings.  There’s also no denying that particular network has pissed me off on more than one occasion.  However, it was recently pointed out to me that Fox takes chances on shows that other networks wouldn’t touch with an inanimate carbon rod: case in point Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. So while I don’t expect it to fill the Destiny sized hole that SGU’s departure left in my life, I can’t deny that Fox’s time travel-dinosaur-dystopia, Terra Nova, looks reasonably interesting.  Terra Nova sees humanity escaping from its polluted and overcrowded future into its distant past.  The idea is that the refugees will built a sustainable civilization and either escape to Mars, or die off with the ice age thus preventing any species-nullifying time paradoxes.  It’s not the worst idea I’ve ever heard.  Here’s the clip.

Anybody who knows science fiction knows that David Weber is one of the genre’s most prolific writers.  Weber’s most recognizable claim to fame is the long running Honor Harrington series of military sci-fi novels.  This coming Tuesday, September 13, 2011, sees the launch of the next entry into Weber’s “Safehold” series of novels.  How Firm a Foundation is the fifth instalment in a series of novels that chronicle the ongoing conflict between an oppressive and dogmatic church and the small empire that dares to defy the “truth” of the Church’s history.

Blending elements of science fiction, fantasy, and historical narrative, the Safehold novels are rich in detail and rife with complex characters.  Moreover, Weber’s outstanding ability to write space battles has easily translated to the sea battles of planet Safehold.   How Firm a Foundation will be released in hardcover, e-format and as an audio book which promises “to translate to die-hard fans as well as listeners looking to break into the Sci-Fi genre.”  Here’s a little taste of what’s to come in audio book format.

Finally, gamers can delight to the knowledge that a new first-person space combat game is on its way.  Back in July, indie gaming studio Seamless Entertainment announced Sol: Exodus. The good folk at Seamless are, in their own words, intent on “re-energizing a faded genre once known for legendary hits like Wing Commander and Freespace.”  It’s a gusty proposition to say the least, but one that seems to have a lot of potential.

Sol: Exodus taps directly into the fears of our time to weave its story.  When humanity discovers that it has centuries, not eons, before the sun goes nova, the Earth government sends out a fleet of starships to find a new home.  One ship, the UCS Atlas, returns to the Sol system to find the government that sent it out displaced by a doomsday cult that embraces the impending destruction.  Players will assume the role of an Atlas star fighter pilot while this lone starship attempts to save humanity from itself and its dying star.  The game promises fast-paced dog fighting, to scale capital ship battles and a gripping story.

Want to know more? Send me an email and I’ll be sure to ask your questions when I have the developers on an upcoming podcast.

And that, friends, Romans and Space Marines, is your geek news for September 10, 2011.  May the immortal Emperor’s blessings be upon you.


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Book Review: Off Armageddon Reef

Written By: David Weber

Published By: Tor

Pages: 608

Summary Judgement:  David Weber’s first volume in the “Safehold” series fuses the best elements of military science fiction with 17th century European intrigue.  While the book won’t appeal to everybody, it is not without its charms.

Off Armageddon Reef begins at the end of Human civilization.  The Terran Federation, which is exactly what it sounds like, is on the verge of total destruction.  A malevolent race of extraterrestrials called “the Gbaba” – which sounds like something I’d yell at a sheep while on a bender – has devastated the worlds of Man, thus necessitating the creation of a Noah’s Arc.  While the Gbaba burn the Earth, humanity establishes a new civilization on the far-flung planet Safehold.  Unfortunately for humanity, the plan to lay low before restoring humanity to its technological greatness does not quite pan out.  Prior to emerging from cryogenic suspension, all of Safehold’s colonists have their memories of Earth, Arabic numerals, the metric system and faster-than-light travel stripped away.  To preserve humanity, Safehold’s administrators utilize false history and an oppressive religion, complete with an inquisition, to keep the last vestiages of humanity in perpetual technological stagnation, thus safe from the Gbaba’s energy seeking probes.  To Weber’s credit, all of this happens inside of 100 pages.

The story then skips ahead eight hundred years.  The shared lie of human history, reinforced by the doctrine of the Church of God Awaiting, has kept Safehold at a constant technological level similar to that of late 17th century Europe.  Enter Nimue Alban or rather, the consciousness of Nimue Alban downloaded into an android body.  Nimue’s resurrection is the result of a schism within Safehold’s founders.  These dissenters rejected the idea that humanity should remain perpetually ignorant of its own history.  Thus, Nimue awakes to find herself alone, immortal and armed with all the information she would need to restore humanity to its past glory.  Adapting the guise of a warrior/monk/mystic named Merlin Athrawes, Nimue begins her quest in the novel’s principle location, the Kingdom of Charis.  I suppose the pseudonym is appropriate considering the character embodies Deus Ex Machina in every sense of the term.  While the choice of nomenclature did, literally, evoke a groan, the character’s role as provocateur, catalyst and heretic to the Church of God Awaiting drives this novel in a fascinating direction.

While we are on the subject of protagonists, I know I have probably said this before, but it bears repeating; I resolutely believe it is a cardinal sin for sci-fi writers to create a protagonist smarter than the author.  It’s one of the reasons why I didn’t find myself enraptured with Ender’s Game.

“Oh  you’re so good at the Battle Room, Ender.”

“Yes I am and I have no further comment because you’ll never understand how good I actually am.  Now if you’ll excuse me I have to go cry.”

Although Merlin is the one-eyed man in the land of the blind, Weber does an excellent job keeping him accessible to both the audience and the book’s characters.  The remainder of the dramatis personae, initially, seem a bit dull.  The King of Charis, his crown prince and their first councillor fit fairly comfortably into the good guy archetype established in Frank Herbert’s Dune: A wise king beloved by his subjects, his impetuous but honourable son and the grumpy commoner elevated to the inner circle based solely on his merit.  To compensate for keeping squarely within the boundaries of character creation, Weber gives some of his more formulaic characters an unusually robust personality.  Sadly, nuanced personalities are few and far between when dealing with the book’s various antagonists.  Most of those who plot the downfall of the Kingdom of Charis seem a little too evil for the sake of evil.  One in particular, Prince Nahrmahn of Emerald Island, seems like a complete waste of bad-guy potential.  There is no doubt in my mind that Weber can write a complex character so why not extend that ability to the villains?

Weber also deserves praise for thoroughly researching his history before writing Off Armageddon Reef.  In so much as this is a book about restoring humanity, it is also a science fiction adaptation of the protestant reformation.  The Church of God Awaiting easily stands in for any heavy handed, dogmatic institution in human history.  As Merlin gently nudges Charis toward developments that flirt with the Church’s proscription against advanced technology, a reader can’t help but marvel at Weber’s ability to dissect several centuries of human advancement into its component parts.  Nowhere is this talent more evident than in Merlin’s reforms to the Royal Charisian Navy.  Already the foremost naval power on Safehold, Merlin’s revolutionary ideas (square rigged schooners, copper bottomed boats, standardized cannons with pre-packaged powder charges) fast-forward thorough generations of naval and scientific innovation.  At times, the book feels more in line with one of Patrick O’Brien’s Jack Aubrey novels, than it does a sci-fi epic.  However, my countless hours spent reading British naval logs while in grad school, only created a deeper appreciation for Weber’s attention to the smallest nuances of sailor jargon.

While Weber’s ability to translate the starship battles of his “Honor Harrington” series to the sea battles of Safehold is commendable, it does lead into one of my complaints about the book.  If you have ever sailed or if you know anything at all about naval warfare, the book’s ending is very predictable.  I won’t say anything specific lest I spoil things for people.  The only consolation for this predictable ending is that the final act is as well crafted as the rest of the novel.  I also found the phonetic spelling of character names to be a bit of an unnecessary gimmick.  Did Eric Langhorne, the architect of Safehold’s religion and false history, fear that proper spelling and syntax would somehow lead the Gbaba to humanity’s refuge?  For example, King Harold of Charis spells his name, Haarahld.  A few typos that see people’s names printed in the common spelling, which in no way impacts the book’s tone or quality, only underscores the redundancy of phonetic trope.

Ultimately, the challenge of a book such as Off Armageddon Reef is that in existing between genres it runs the risk of alienating its potential audience.  While Merlin has access to a venerable arsenal of advanced weapons and knowledge, he uses them in the same non-intrusive way that The Doctor uses his Sonic Screwdriver – it might move things along but it never saves the day.  Merlin’s knowledge and abilities are a mere catalyst for advancing the primitive technology and politics of Safehold.   The book is a compromise between military science fiction and historical fiction.  Like any compromise, Off Armageddon Reef, runs the risk of leaving all parties feeling unsatisfied.  The strength of such an interesting fusion is that the blended genre might appeal to people who normally breeze past the sci-fi section.

While you may not need to run screaming to the book store to pick up Off Armageddon Reef, it is certainly a solid read.  Keep it in mind the next time you want something new but don’t quite know where to start.

Overall Score: 77%